Large Schools vs. Small Schools: Which perform better?

Small schools perform better than large schools in more than one aspect.

A study finds that small rural communities with a school have significantly higher housing values, more new housing, smaller income variability, fewer households receiving public assistance, lower poverty and child poverty rates, more workers in professional and managerial jobs, and more workers employed within the community. The existence of schools even in small rural areas proves many benefits, but there is a larger question posed, would it be more beneficial to have a small school or a large one? This paper aims to find which category offers more to the quality of students. It may be true that large schools may have grander facilities like television and radio stations but there is more than behind the curtain of facilities.

An extensive body of research demonstrates numerous positive benefits of small schools and small learning communities, especially for those students who are at greatest risk of educational failure. Indeed, in a synthesis of research on small schools, Raywid (1997/1998, p. 35) concludes, “there is enough evidence now of such positive effects—and of the devastating effects of large size on substantial numbers of youngsters—that it seems morally questionable not to act on it.” This is more or less the same stand that this paper takes.

In a small school there would be more benefits. As you will see throughout the paper, there have been studies that point out the benefits of a small school over that of a large one.  There is almost 40 years of existing research and literature on small schools which indicates that students in small schools have higher attendance and graduation rates, fewer drop-outs, equal or better levels of academic achievement, higher levels of extra-curricular participation and parent involvement, and fewer incidences of discipline and violence.

Wasley, et al (2000, pg 4) says small schools increase student attendance across all types of small schools: schools-within-schools (SWS), freestanding small schools, and multi-school small schools. Lakhman (1999), on the other hand found that between 1988 and 1998, DeWitt Clinton high school developed 10 small schools. During that time, they reduced their dropout rate by 8.5% and increased their on-time graduation rate by almost 50%. Thus, proving that small schools have the ability to improve attendance and graduation rate.

Moreover, researchers observe that the effects of smallness on achievement are indirect, being mediated through other small-school features as quality of the social environment and students’ sense of attachment to the school. Mitchell (2000) reminds us that in the studies conducted by Howley and others, school size had such a powerful positive effect on the achievement of poor students that it even trumped the beneficial effects of class size (Cotton, 2001). This can also be credited to the fact that in a small school, they can focus more on the need of each student. Sometimes, students does not need a large school with lots of reference books but a school that encourages a lot of help, from peers and teachers.

There are several studies whose findings reveal that students at all grade levels learn more in small schools than in large schools. Several researchers have also examined middle-grades schools with interdisciplinary teams and found that students in this type of small learning community outperform similar students in schools without such organizational arrangements (Mertens and Flowers, 2003; Mertens, Flowers, and Mulhall, 2001; George and Lounsbury, 2000; Lee and Smith, 2000; Felner et al., 1997; Lee and Smith, 1993).

In addition from improved attendance, higher graduation rates and improved academic achievement in small schools, another factor that is considered is the students’ level of participation.  Take for example Mitchell’s (2000) observation where in a school of 2,000 students, only the most talented will be recruited for the basketball team or the drama club. The result is that a small number of gifted students dominate the sports and activity rosters, while the vast majority are relegated to spectator status. In small schools, sports teams, musical groups and clubs depend on broader participation.

The number of extracurricular opportunities does increase with school size. But a twentyfold increase in population produces only a fivefold increase in opportunities. That is, as the school expands, an increasingly smaller percentage of students are needed to fill the available slots. In short, more students produce less participation. Most students will not be required to participate because there will be others who would. In a small school every student will have the opportunity to hone and improve their talents and interests. Researchers point out that, in small schools, everyone is needed to populate teams, offices, and clubs; thus, even shy and less able students are encouraged to participate and made to feel they belong.

In addition to the factors mentioned, another advantage of a small school over a large one involves more personalized approach where levels of parent involvement and parent satisfaction are greater in small school environments than in large ones. Communication between parents and teachers tends to be more substantive given the fact that the teachers often know the students better in the smaller learning environment (Cotton, 2001). This is a positive reinforcement of discipline for the students.  In a smaller learning environment, the students’ activities can be monitored and can be reported to parents, whether a violation or a perceived improvement.

Among the advantages mentioned, the fewer incidence of violence is perhaps the most important. “There is less violence in small schools, less vandalism, a heightened sense of belonging, and better attendance,” the KnowledgeWorks report states. Another research also showed that “In urban schools with less than 300 students, 3.9% of the schools reported serious violent incidents compared with 32.9% of schools over 1,000 students (Gregory, 2000).” Small schools are better positioned to detect and help hurting students, and to address disruptive behavior before it escalates into tragic violence and abuse. When teachers know virtually all students in a school community by name, it fosters a culture of belonging, accountability, and support.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (2000) studies show that small learning environments are characterized by fewer incidents of violence and disruptive behavior, less school graffiti, lower crime levels, and less serious student misconduct. The association attribute this to what they term as “human-scale schooling” which reduces isolation and increasing the sense of belongingness. Indeed, a closer community will bring more familiarity and less hostility.

Hence, with all the aspects considered in the paper, it can be deduced that in a school of smaller quantity, we can focus more on the students’ quality. From this standpoint, the performance of a small school is better. Even policy makers have noted these benefits leading to  the development of some new rules. These includes: Florida Small School Law which recognizes the benefits of small schools and prohibits, as of July 2003, the construction of large schools. As of that date, new elementary schools will be limited to 500 students, middle schools to 700, and high schools to 900.

Another is the Vermont Funding for Small Schools which in 1997, Vermont adopted a new system of funding education under Vermont Act 60 – The Equal Educational Opportunity Act (EEOA). Unlike most states, Vermont choose to provide additional funding to cover the higher costs of the state’s smallest school districts. An extra $1 million per year was allocated to districts with fewer than 100 students. This paper believes as far as, the future can depend on small school more than large ones, and to borrow Daniel Kinnaman’s title, the future will be filled up by small schools (with) big benefits.

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